Six Nations Preview Part 3

Posted: January 31, 2014 in Europe
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Saturday February 1, 9:30 AM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

This is the most uneven of the weekend’s fixtures on paper – Wales is favored by around 20 points – and the match could be even more lopsided than that. The Welsh Rugby Union announced this morning that the roof at the Millennium will be closed, a condition which will hopefully encourage the Welsh to play a more attacking, open style – the exact opposite of what the Italians want.

Italy will field a starting XV composed of a pack with a massive 587 combined caps, and a backline with just 115 caps between them – perhaps the largest disparity ever in an international rugby team. Injuries have forced coach Jacques Brunel to pick a very inexperienced backline – Angelo Esposito makes his debut on one wing, while on the other wing, Leonardo Sarto will make just his third appearance for the Azzurri. At outside center, Michele Campagnaro will also be making his third appearance, while flyhalf Tommaso Allen is the relative veteran of this young group, playing in his fourth Test. The experience of scrumhalf Edoardo Gori, inside center Alberto Sgarbi, and fullback Luke McLean will be vital as Italy seek to contain the huge threat of the Welsh backline, currently the most potent attacking force in the Northern Hemisphere.

For Wales, British and Irish Lion Jonathan Davies misses out on selection, as he is just coming back from a pectoral injury he suffered against South Africa during the Autumn Tests. But Davies has a very talented deputy in Scott Williams, and otherwise the Welsh are at full strength in the backs. In the pack, captain Sam Warburton has been judged only fit enough to make the bench, so Justin Tipuric, a more traditional 7, slots into the back row alongside Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau. Lock Alun-Wyn Jones takes over the captaincy. Lydiate will be under some scrutiny, as he has been in poor form for his club, Racing Metro, where he has been required to do more ball-carrying than he is used to. Loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins is just returning to fitness after a recurrence of his persistent calf problem, so Paul James starts in his place.

For Italy to keep this one close, they will need to keep the game as tight as possible through the forwards, and go hard at the breakdown to slow down Welsh ball. Everyone in the rugby world knows how good Italian number 8 Sergio Parisse is, but his back row colleague Alessandro Zanni is also a fine player, and they are joined by another wily veteran in Mauro Bergamasco. These three will have to dig deep into the bag of tricks they’ve assembled over a combined 276 Test matches for Italy. The trouble is that the Welsh back row is also very good, and very balanced. Essentially, Lydiate is the tackling machine, Tipuric is the turnover specialist, and Faletau is the primary ball carrier – when they are all in form, they compliment each other so well, and it is a beautiful thing to watch.

Unfortunately for the Italians, with the roof closed, there are likely to be fewer handling errors, and thus fewer scrums. Welsh tighthead Adam Jones, the rock of the Welsh scrum for so many years, has admittedly struggled with the new scrum laws, and the Italians will be confident at scrum time. But how many opportunities will they get? Neutrals will be hoping Italy put in a big performance to make this match competitive, but I just can’t see it happening. Wales by 25

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Rome:

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